- Last week, the Assam government informed the Assembly that nearly 44 lakh foreigners had been identified in the state until January 31 this year based on the 1985 Assam Accord, and around 30,000 of them had been deported.
- It added that definitions of phrases mentioned in the Accord such as ‘Axomiya janagan’ (Assamese people), ‘khilonjia’ (indigenous) and ‘adi basinda’ (original inhabitants) were yet to be determined.
Who is a foreigner under the Assam Accord?
- The Assam Accord was signed in 1985 by the Centre and the Assam government with the All Assam Student Union and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad, which had spearheaded the 1979-85 Assam Movement against migration from Bangladesh.
- It set March 24, 1971 as a cut-off. Anyone who had come to Assam before midnight on that date would be an Indian citizen, while those who had come after would be dealt with as foreigners.
- The same cut-off was used in updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC).
Why is it important to define ‘Assamese people’?
- Clause 6 of the Assam Accord promises constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people.
- Clause 6 is important because many felt the 1971 cut-off was inadequate to address the impact of migration. It is seen as a provision that would guarantee certain benefits to the Assamese people to compensate for the 1971 cut-off.
Issues with the cut-off date
- The cut-off for the rest of India is 1948, many noted that the Assam Accord would grant citizenship to a section of migrants who would be counted as foreigners elsewhere in the country.
- Clause 6 was, therefore, seen as a protective provision which would guarantee certain benefits to the Assamese people, while excluding some sections among those granted citizenship on the basis of the 1971 cut-off.
Why is the ‘Assamese’ definition difficult?
- ‘Axomiya’ or ‘Assamese’ is a contested term and there is no specific universal definition.
- Many feel people whose ancestors were living in Assam before 1826, when Assam was merged with British India, are
- Others feel ‘Axomiya’ include residents of Assam before 1951, when the first NRC was drawn up.
- Still others feel anyone speaking any indigenous language is an Axomiya, and many are in favour of extending the definition to include Bengali-speaking residents of Barak Valley, where Bengali is the local language.
Have any definitions been proposed?
- A key committee came in 2019, when Assam was rocked by protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which proposes to grant citizenship to various categories of foreigners including Hindus from Bangladesh.
- The government set up the committee as a means to quell the protests.
- This committee recommended following persons as Assamese:
- All citizens who are part of the Assamese community
- Any person of indigenous tribal community of Assam
- Any other indigenous community of Assam
- Any other citizens of India residing in the territory or Assam on or before January 1, 1951 and
- Descendants of these categories
What are the other terms for which no definition has been finalised?
- Khilonjia: In common parlance, khilonjia refers to all indigenous communities. The question is who would be considered indigenous. One line of argument has been that the definition should include various communities whose history in Assam dates back before the 1826 annexation with British India, but others contest this because of the groups that would be excluded.
- Adi Basinda: ‘Original inhabitants’, as the phrase suggests, would mean the tribes who have lived for generations in Assam. Some in Assam want this to extend to tribal communities settled by the British during colonial rule, but even this is not a settled definition.
When was the Assam region separated from the Bengal Presidency?